Posts Tagged ‘Jedd Hughes’

Album Review: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game”

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 

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Cheater’s Game

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If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music. 

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Album Review – Little Big Town – “Tornado”

September 18, 2012

Little Big Town

Tornado

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You’d think the combination of irresistible four part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town have had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite latched onto the fans and country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sung and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one.

Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”

Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.

I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which Joyce turns into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.

“On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped up rock that’s well presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on Tornado) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic, its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

It’s a good day to be a Little Big Town fan

July 18, 2012

There aren’t many announcements in modern country worth even a modicum of excitement, but news of brand new music from Little Big Town (Tornado, their fifth album, hits Sept. 11) is worth shouting from the rooftops.

Why? Because their the most consistently good and highly underrated band in country music gunning for radio airplay.  Their brilliance as a tight unit has led to some of this century’s most interesting singles from “Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home” to “Fine Line” and “Little White Church.”

That keen ear for song selection looks to continue with Tornado as the crop of writers chosen to pen the songs are among Nashville’s strongest from Lori McKenna to Jedd Hughes to Luke Laird.

The overwhelmingly intoxicating “Pontoon” has exploded as the lead single, hitting the top 15 in eleven weeks while also sitting atop the iTunes country chart for most of the last two months.

So what accounts for the change of heart from radio and fans?

A modification in sound for one. Out is Wayne Kurkpatrick, the mastermind behind their Road to Here-Place To Land-Reasons Why albums and in is Jay Joyce, the man behind Eric Church’s style of country. This change has lit a fire within and created a hunger missing from their previous music. There’s a new determination now to force country radio to stop ignoring them, once and for all.

Only time will tell if subsequent singles match the buzz of “Pontoon.” I’m in love with the sound of this song for sure, but the very underwhelming second verse, which misses (as well as desperately needs) a second half, irks me to no end and displays the laziness penetrating most of the lyrics in modern country. But, I’ll be darned if there is a cooler sounding song currently vying for radio airplay.

Thankfully, though, to hear Jimi Westbrook talk about Tornado, there’s a lot to get worked up about:

“I am so excited for people to hear this new record. “Jay really pushed us to be in the moment. There was such an amazing energy between all of us in the studio and I think you can feel it.”

Here’s the album’s cover, complete with their rebranding campagin:

Here’s the track list:

1. “Pavement Ends”
Jason Saenz/Brent Cobb

2. “Pontoon”
Barry Dean/Natalie Hemby/Luke Laird

3. “Sober”
Liz Rose/Hillary Lindsey/Lori McKenna

4. “Front Porch Thing”
Chris Stapleton/Adam Hood

5. “On Your Side of the Bed”
Lori McKenna/Karen Fairchild/Jimi Westbrook/Kimberly Schlapman/Phillip Sweet

6. “Leavin’ in Your Eyes”
Brett Warren/Brad Warren/Jay Joyce/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman

7. “Tornado”
Natalie Hemby/Delta Made

8. “On Fire Tonight”
Luke Laird/P.Sweet/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman

9. “Can’t Go Back”
Natalie Hemby/Kate York/Rosi Golan

10. “Self Made”
Natalie Hemby/Jedd Hughes/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild

11. “Night Owl”
Natalie Hemby/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman/P.Sweet

Is it too much to ask for September 11 come just a bit faster, please?